U.S. House members rely on video chat tools
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and staff are now permitted to use Skype, an online video-chatting tool, following a decision by the House Administration Committee.
Through Skype video calling, members of Congress can reduce travel time and related costs while increasing and improving communications, transparency and accountability in government. The tool enables lawmakers to hold meetings with their constituents who are unable to travel to the congressional office, participate in virtual town hall meetings when the congressperson is not in his/her district, and build relationships and collaborate with other House members on legislative proposals.
House Democrats had, in the past, designated Skype as an “unauthorized” website because of potential cybersecurity risks to congressional computers. House Republicans have been working for the past year to reverse the prohibition on using the tools.
In a letter to fellow House members, committee chair Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said the chamber’s public Wi-Fi network has been enabled to permit the use of Skype and ooVoo, an instant messenger tool. The House negotiated a modified license agreement with both sites so that House rules are followed and security is protected.
“During a time when Congress must do more with less, utilizing low-cost, real-time communication tools is an effective way to inform and solicit feedback from your constituents,” Lungren wrote in the letter. “In addition to Skype and ooVoo, we are searching for additional means to help enhance constituent communications.”
Technicians from Skype collaborated with the congressional network security team to ensure that the video chat tool is used strictly for official business in a safe manner. Members of Congress and their staff can personally configure privacy settings to provide a high level of security when using Skype. The Skype software allows users to accept or block a contact, and it never “answers” a call unless instructed to do so by the user. Skype video calls are initiated only when users at all ends of the call make the affirmative choice to enable video calling.
Each congressional office will have access to their own Skype Manager account, so there is a single staffer in each office who can administer the Skype accounts.
Other levels of government are relying on Skype for communicating. In Marquette, Mich., City Manager Bill Vajda has started inviting citizens to contact him through his Skype account with questions, concerns or just to send greetings.
“I know that people tune their ears over the time we’ve had the telephone to try to figure out what the people’s emotions are or what they might be thinking on the other end of the phone, but there is an awful lot of unspoken communication that goes on between people just when they are in a face-to-face meeting [via Skype].”
Vajda has been relying on Skype to interact with former Marquette residents and military members serving overseas.